The clash of generations in the workplace is so clichéd at this point it’s even getting its own movie — The Intern premiered last weekend, with Anne Hathaway as a young CEO and Robert de Niro as her new intern. The premise is highly improbable, but due to a thoughtful script and some fine acting, the movie succeeds in provoking us to think about the challenges and successes of a 70-year-old man and his young colleagues learning to work together.
Journalists and consultants are making a ton of money talking about vast generational differences. Boomers are supposed to be hard-working, loyal, old-fashioned and resistant to change. Millennials are typecast as self-centered, entitled and incapable of meaningful face-to-face relationships. Most of these alleged differences are supported by little or no research. But that doesn’t seem to stop us from repeating them – and allowing these prejudices to distort our perceptions of each other.
Any Boomer who remembers the “Generation Gap” knows how overblown the divide between the old and new generations can be. In the late ’60s and early ’70s there was much hand-wringing about how awful the young people were. Journalists blamed the famous pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock for advocating the “permissive parenting” that had led to the dreadful behavior of the young. The young people of that era were in fact making all kinds of trouble – political protests, the sexual revolution, recreational drug use, women’s lib and so on. One of their mottos was “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” And those young people were us – the sober, reliable, creaky old Boomers.
There are certainly differences between Boomers and Millennials. And yet, the heart of The Intern is all about building a bridge between the two generations to make both sides better. While the premise of a 70-year-old intern may seem silly, the truth that we have much to learn from each other is not.
We have an amazing opportunity to collaborate across generations to reinvent the workplace. As the Boomers approach retirement, we want many of the same things Millennials do, making us natural allies. Just look at this list in Chief Learning Officer. Boomers seek meaning and social relationships in the workplace. We want the opportunity to use our skills and talent. We want flexible work schedules, such as reduced hours, job sharing, telecommuting, seasonal work, flextime and compressed work schedules. We want the chance to explore new career directions. Sound familiar? It’s all the same stuff that Millennials are said to be seeking. So much for the Generation Gap!
In some ways Boomers and Millennials are much alike. In other ways, we are complementary. Many Boomers are seeking opportunities to be teachers, coaches and mentors. The wisest of us recognize that the Millennials know a lot that we don’t know. But we also understand that we have perspective and experience to offer. When I was a brand-new psychologist, I desperately sought out older colleagues who could help me figure out what the heck I was doing. I went out of my way to find experienced mentors who could help me navigate the complexities of working with difficult clients, to say nothing of dealing with difficult colleagues. Now, I find that many Millennials eagerly seek me out as a coach and mentor, and the relationship is usually hugely beneficial to both of us.
To harness the power of these cross-generational relationships, it’s necessary to remember the many forms they can take. Boomers are now approximately 50-70 years old while Millennials are roughly 15-35. So our age differences can range from only 15 years to 55 years. That means that in some cases we are like widely spaced siblings, in others like parents and children, and in others like grandparents and grandchildren. Each type of relationship comes with its own feelings and challenges. Siblings may be loyal to each other, but they are often very competitive, especially if there are scarce resources such as opportunities for promotion. Parents often feel both responsible for, and judgmental of, their children’s choices, while the children may respond with impatience and rebellion. Between grandparents and grandchildren there is often deep affection but also a sense of bewilderment about how different the generations are. All of those dynamics can play out between the generations in the workplace as much as they do in families.
So how do we make the best of these complex relationships? The Intern actually offers some pretty good advice. We see the elderly Ben approaching his new role with humility as well as an eagerness to go beyond what is asked of him. We see him bringing humanity into a fast-paced startup environment. And we see his young colleagues sharing their technological expertise and ability to navigate the new economy with Ben. After some initial discomfort and suspiciousness, what is striking is the receptivity and openness on both sides.
When Boomers started charging into the workforce in 1965, the Selectric typewriter was cutting-edge technology. Times have changed. What hasn’t changed is the need to teach and to learn. What hasn’t changed is the desire to make human connections and care about each other. What hasn’t changed is the determination to find meaning and fulfillment, both at work and at home. Boomers and Millennials share a vision of how the world can be a better place. And maybe, together, we can make it happen.